Thursday, January 8, 2009

Before You Question Mangini, Question Lerner

The Cleveland Browns made it official today. Eric Mangini is now the 12th fulltime coach in franchise history. The first head coach with previous head coaching experience since Nick Skorich in 1971.

Mangini comes to the Browns a little over a week after being fired as the head coach of the New York Jets for three seasons. Mangini complied two winning season in three years and totaled a 23-35 record and a first round loss in the 2006 NFL Playoffs.

Many question the selection of Mangini in the first place and rightfully so, for a wide variety of reasons. Certain Jets’ players including one NFL Icon apparently didn’t like playing for Mangini in New York. The Jets’ flushed away an 8-3 start in 2009 and ended with a 9-7 record, including a season ending clunker versus Miami at home.

Mangini has the reputation of being a strict disciplinarian. Having come from the Bill Belichick coaching tree his interviews, comments and interaction with the media has come under fire as well.

He also has faced scrutiny for turning Belichick and the New England Patriots into the league for the infamous “Spygate” controversy last season. The Browns were the only team to show any sort of interest in Mangini which is sure to raise some eyebrows, but rumors of his being blackballed due to the being the Spygate snitch have been mentioned.

Mangini did have his fair share of backers as well. Many believe that the Jets’ epic 2009 collapse doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders. Some former players like Leon Washington have actually come out and shown support for their departed Jets’ leader.

Mangini still is young, at age 37, and does have three years on NFL head coaching experience. Dick Vermeil, Mike Shanahan, Tom Coughlin and even Belichick himself have had success in their second go rounds as head coaches. If Mangini can learn form his mistakes in New York and use that knowledge in Cleveland he does have a chance to succeed.

The bottom line is that Mangini will be judged on wins and losses. If he wins no one will care about how dull his press conferences are. If he loses no one will care he used to be a ball boy for the Browns in the mid 1990s when Belichick was a first time coach and Mangini caught his eye.

However, for all the questions being asked about Eric Mangini there should be more questions being asked of Browns’ owner Randy Lerner.

While Lerner does deserve some credit for having a list of candidates by priority: Bill Cowher, Scott Pioli, and Mangini. One has to question the way Lerner has gone about the process of structuring his football organization.

Since there return in 1999 the Browns have failed to structure their organization in a way that promotes an environment that is conducive to winning on a consistent basis. The structure of the football team starts in the front office and works its way down.

The Browns have lacked a solid team president, on the football operations side, since John Collins was dismissed after the 2004 season. The President of Football Operations is necessary to establish and define the identity and direction of the organization on and off the field. One only needs to look to Miami to see the impact that Bill Parcells has had in this role.

This is the role that Lerner needed to fill first. He does not want to be the face of the franchise like Bob Kraft in New England or Jerry Jones in Dallas. If anything he is camera shy to a fault, even going so far as to have an agreement with the networks to keep him off television.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Lerner does in fact attend every home game. Many love to point to his ownership of the Aston Villa football club in the English Premier League as a lack of commitment to the Browns. His ownership of Aston Villa is totally unrelated and has no effect on his commitment to the Browns.

Despite that commitment, Lerner himself admits that he has no knowledge or desire to run an NFL franchise. He’s not a “football man.” That’s why one has to question Lerner for not bringing in someone to run the football side of the franchise on a daily basis. No offense to current Team President Mike Keenan but he is skilled/schooled in the business side of things not the football side.

Lerner also has to be taken to task for interviewing both GM and head coaching candidates. Once again, he is admittedly not a “football man” by any means, what qualifications does he have to select the GM and/or coach on his own? Even if he is getting advice from respect NFL peers and colleges, how can he effectively judge a candidate on his merits?

By employing a President of Football Operations it would give Lerner an effective counterpart to independently evaluate every candidate. As I stated previously, an organization needs to be built from the top down to ensure a common focus and establish a hierarchy of command.

Based on that, the next logical step would be to hire a GM, who reports to the President, to run the player personnel and development in the direction and identity the Owner and President desire. Based on those criteria the Owner, President and GM would select a head coach who they all felt shared the same vision for the identity of the team.

Randy Lerner, however, chose to go about things in a rather backwards kind of way. Lerner fell in love with Mangini the moment he heard that he had been fired by the Jets. That in itself is fine but once again the way in which he went about things has to be questioned.

Rather than fill the GM spot and collaborate on the selection of the head coach, Lerner chose to hire his head coach, Mangini, first. This is not a knock on Mangini, but on Lerner. Lerner has asked Mangini for his input on whom he feels could be a competent GM who Mangini can work hand in had with after the departed (Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel) were obviously not on the same page for their four years in Cleveland.

While the desire to have the coach and GM on the same wavelength in the correct line of thinking the way Lerner has gone about it is all wrong. In effect, Lerner is letting Mangini choose who his superior is. That in of itself is extremely flawed logic. If you are going to have organizational stability and accountability you need to have the General Manager in place before the head coach.

The other problem that selecting the head coach first creates is that in limits the number of candidates for general manager. Pioli and Eagles GM Tom Heckert have already withdrawn their named form consideration for the Browns’ GM job now that Mangini has been appointed head coach. Again, not a knock on Mangini, but most GMs are going to want to have input on their head coach.

So here the Browns sit after the worst decade of football the city of Cleveland has ever seen, by far, with a new head coach but without a Team President or General Manager.

While I remain cautiously optimistic and intrigued about the potential of Eric Mangini, I am worried to death about the structure of the Browns organization as a whole and if Mangini has any change to succeed because of it, not himself.

It is these questions about Randy Lerner and the organization that his family is restructuring, for the fourth time in ten seasons, which should be asked and explored. Those questions about Eric Mangini and his qualification should take a backseat to those about the Browns organization as a whole.

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